Friday, November 21, 2014

Selections from the Permanent Collection of the NCLAG: Portraits

Miss Understood in the Midwest    30 x 40    2003
The North Canton Little Art Gallery is showcasing 28 pieces from their collection of over 200, this time focusing on portraits as the theme. Full disclosure, my own painting “Miss Understood in the Midwest” is part of the show, added to their collection in 2003. Now I feel really old.

One must keep in mind that not all portraits are of peoples’ faces. A portrait can be about a place or a time and Elizabeth Blakemore took great care to exhibit works that reflect this concept. The range of years and styles and participants is truly remarkable to someone like myself who has been around this local scene for a couple of decades now. The show is part retrospective and part mystery. Ah yes, we have a mystery at the gallery! Details forthcoming but first we must visit the walls of fame.

This show is a treasure trove of information to those who follow the artists of our area. It also reinforces my argument that artists need to date their work! Several pieces could not be put into context because the works are undated….what a shame. When one can see a stylistic change in the art of Fredlee Votaw 1986 and Claire Murray (Adams) 2001 because of the dates on their pieces, it is such a disappointment to not know the year of a very delicate charcoal self-portrait by Bette Elliot. The piece is given a solo spot on the wall as the reigning queen emeritus of Canton art (now deceased), but how old was she at the time? Perhaps curators should reject any undated (and an even more cardinal sin, unsigned) pieces. I guess I would take an untitled over an undated if a choice had to be made.

Knowing when a piece was created allows us to see the foreshadowing of what an artist now creates. The original NCLAG was housed on the 2nd floor of the NC Public Library, then a frame house on the corner of Main Street where the NC YMCA now resides. Two Hoover employees, Ellsworth Smith and Esta Stoner were responsible for its birth in 1930. The permanent collection was started several years later. I chicken scratched the year 1938 on a margin but won’t trust I was referring to the start date.

Here is a list of some artists and the dates of their works, see how many you know: Roger Coast 1978 with an early version of the zentangle idea before it became a fad; Mark Moon ‘70s; Cleo Clark Williams ‘84ish; Ted Lawson 2005; Fred Goodnight 1994; Charles Zollars 1963; Clyde Singer; Pola Yochum 1994; Lisa Hertzi 1996 and the list continues……but we have a mystery to explore….

An illustration by Lois Lenski hangs on the back wall. A small rather unassuming drawing that is framed and donated in memory of Helen Hoover.  Lois Lenski was a famous children’s book author and illustrator of her day. Born in Springfield OH in 1893, she went on to graduate college (unusual for women in the early turn of the century) and worked extensively in the graphic arts during their infancy. This particular drawing is from her book “Skipping Village”, published by Stokes in 1927.

The mystery is…how did it get to the museum, are their more of her illustrations lost in the stacks someplace and is it really an original by the artist? Elizabeth and I went through the documentation file for the piece and were no closer to finding an answer and in fact, just raised more questions.

To keep a long story short, in 1945 a letter was received at the library telling them that some illustrations by the artist (plural) were being sent for their perusal and to keep what they wished but send the unwanted ones back. The artist wanted her pieces to be hung in children’s libraries. The library acknowledged the receipt of one piece (singular) shortly thereafter by letter back to the sender and expressing their desire to keep it.  There seems to be no further information as to how many were actually sent and how many actually arrived.  Jump ahead a few decades to 1994, when then curator of the NCLAG Judee DeBourdieu, requested an appraisal of the “original illustration” by Lois Lenski from “Skipping Village” dated 1927. The letter was sent to the Stone Gallery in Michigan who handled the works by Lenski. A letter of authenticity was received in July of 1994. Next year, in 1995 somebody was reading about the artist and found credible information that all but one of her books were illustrated by the artist, that one book being “Skipping Village” (and the lady published nearly a 100 so it seems). A letter of inquiry was sent to the Kerlan Collection in Minnesota, a children’s literature and research center, who confirmed it was the frontispiece from the 1927 book but did not answer the question about whether the artist had a hand in/on it. Evidently everybody just moved on. The illustration was later found in a stack of stuff, dusted off, framed and dedicated as stated before.  Elizabeth pointed out an ink pen “presented to” written in the lower left hand corner with word “town” written in pencil beside it. Further review however, with reading glasses on and a desire for a magnifying glass, revealed that a full sentence written in pencil lies underneath that ink which reads “I ----- for my little town!”  One important word can’t be made out. The illustration itself is typical of the era and a rather delightful piece of children’s illustration, but did Lois Lenski actually draw it? And so too, how many more are there hiding in the library? If multiples were sent, a single received, did someone deceive? An original copy of the book “Skipping Village” was purchased for the library…is it still upstairs someplace? Anyone who wants to investigate the mystery, add information or knows of anyone who might, please contact the NCLAG.

 If you want to see the show, you only have a couple of weeks at most before the Legacy of Ferdinand Brader opens December 11th.

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